“For time flows on, and if it did not, it would be a bad prospect for those who do not sit at golden tables. Methods become exhausted; stimuli no longer work. New problems appear and demand new methods. Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change. Nothing comes from nothing; the new comes from the old, but that is why it is new.”
— Bertolt Brecht
How are we “of our time”? What does “historical context” mean in-the-moment in performance? How can we develop an approach that deals with our contemporary and evolving conceptions of time, history, and the contextual “location” of individual conception? Here is something that emerges as an ideological and aesthetic dichotomy through collaboration with thingNY on TIME: A Complete Explantion in Three Parts: “of the moment” drama vs. “epic” or dialectical theater.
This post is in response to various aesthetic sentiments and then to an e-mail written by Jeffrey Young, arguing for text that he calls “of the moment.” Gelsey, please feel free to weigh in on this, I don’t necessarily share this definition of your text, would love to hear what you think about it all. Mostly, I began this post in attempts to understand my own aesthetic reaction to Jeffrey’s statement and Matthew and Paul’s affinity for autobiography/contemporary reference—which comes up in me as a hairball in a cat—and where this reaction on my part comes from so I can be more mature about it…
First, I think it’s only fair to state that the main ideological positions under which this post functions are inseparable from the idea that public performance can and should catalyze and assist something like “Complex Sight.” (“Sight” not as a sense, but in terms of ways of seeing, or view-point, again, the-ory, the-atre, the = view) which of course is just a “post-colonial reification of Bertolt Brecht” if you want to be like that about it.
The dichotomy between our reactions/preferences, if I attempt to see it on the most concrete level possible, might be described as one between “in the moment” (what could this be called?) work and “epic” or “dialectic” work. On one hand, there is this “in the moment” work that is meant to exist during its first and last performances and in the time period of its creation, refer and describe/express its own time, and pertain directly to the decisions being debated and anxieties being dealt with in a particular time by individuals of that time (zeitgeist?). This work is often autobiographic, non-theatrical, task-based, and contains references and images that are part of the shared (supposedly) daily lives of the performers and the spectators alike. On the other hand, “Epic” (or “dialectical” as Brecht called it later when Epic was given a capital “E”) work is meant to be re-performed many times (there may be some ritual element even to its performance, as a conceptualized task or political action), describe and express human time, and be relevant to the decisions and dialectics that human beings make and participate in, throughout time. References and images are mythic, historical, conceptual/nature/body/thought-based, often more expressionistic or abstract.
Opera, the only medium other than musical theater that is even remotely similar to what we’re doing, is firmly rooted in its tendency towards the latter “epic” presence and re-presence in time. We know that Wagner advanced a tautology of unified works of art, Gesamptkunstwerk, which not only unites artforms but assumes that a piece will be perceived in the same way (uniformly, predictably, mimetically) by a united public. This is how Wagner’s work is in alignment with theories of Volksgeist, and an audience with common conceptions, ideology, national identity/biological race, and homogeonous volk-instructed culture via aesthetic, expectant, and formal transmission. Wagner’s work especially is supposed to be “timeless” in a very particular way, and I think we can agree that it does pretty well at this and that this is why Hitler liked it so much. There is more than a hairball in the way here, so I understand reactions against timelessness/epic-ness as it stems from Wagner and Western classical music traditions.
However, in the theater, in politically-rooted reaction to Wagner’s type of timeless focus, Bertolt Brecht begins with a separation of the work’s elements, which allows an audience to see how a work is made (this is why NYTimes reviewers say a work is “Brechtian” if the lights are exposed, the music is atonal, and actors are sitting onstage or changing costume in full view of the audience) and makes sure that spectators don’t forget that they are seeing a play (which will inevitably end in time and is a subjective way of seeing). This is important (though separate from mimetic timelessness) because Brecht perceives an audience as an engaged body of individuals who must be forced to “See Complexly,” becoming conscious of their own subjective and cultural conceptions alike and comparing them with those present in the work (held and acted upon by, etc). Brecht proposes that when audience members understand what their conceptions and expectations are and where they come from, they become better prepared to make just decisions for themselves and others (which is a proposal that is easily tied into Adorno and various Marxist and phenomenological aesthetic and political theories).
Brecht then moves farther away from Wagner by placing this work in a “real” time, a historical time rather than a fantasy/mythic time. In addition to this, Brecht proposes that awareness of time (both in terms of history and stage-time) is a crucial part of an audience’s ability to think Complexly, to remember that they are watching a play, to recognize that they exist as socio-political agents, and to understand that people’s actions and understanding are forever evolving and transient. In Brecht’s circular narratives, historical context is defined and relevant, both in terms of the piece’s setting, the author’s context, the story, and the audience’s “location” (historically, geographically, culturally, and so on). I think that these distinctions are are best understood through reading Brecht’s own ‘Modern Theater is Epic Theater: Notes to the opera Aufstied and Fall der Stadt Mahagonny’ (1930), the source of that dual list that we all saw copied to the point of disintegration in university course-packs wherein we see the crucial distinction relevant to our exploration here, of “man as process” (Epic Theater) vs. “man as a fixed point” (Dramatic Theater) and a negation in dialectic/epic theater, of linear development, evolutionary determinism, and ‘eyes on the finish’ (progress/product focus). I just ignore some of the other dualisms…
Brecht’s viewpoint on time can also be understood through the hermeneutic lens of his contemporary, Hans-Georg Gadamer, who wrote on the nature of human understanding and the range of an individual’s ability to understand based on his or her own personal “horizon” of influence and experience, and the nature of ‘historically effected consciousness’ (wirkungsgeschichtliches Bewußtsein).
In order to help a spectator’s understanding of her own context, or even evoke the general sensibility of context, Brecht favors Umfunktionierung, the refunctioning/ repurposing/re-presenting of Time: In the dialectic or epic theater, like the aspects of character, narrative, political debate, and moral parable, time/historical location is separated out from the other aspects of the piece and made into a Gestus; Brecht chooses past historical contexts for his works (for the most part) so that historical context (time) may become an isolated element that can be packed and unpacked as a Fabel (an analysis using socio-political ethics, context, and a certain materialism/naturism to determine cause and effect relationships and situate the work of art in time and context), and therefore likewise engages Complex Sight and its analytical socio-political function.
IS it possible to use contemporary and pop-culture references, first-person narratives, autobiography, the self onstage (“real” time, “real” character) and other “of the moment” elements to catalyze and engage Complex Sight (and each of these devices are individual in their implications)? If so, I would like to learn how. Until that explosive day when I understand how, it will seem to me that these “of the moment” elements (and the sensibility, mood, aesthetic, and form that they perpetuate) are the opposite of Gestus, causing the individual audience member’s experience during the performance to merge with his or her daily life and thought, and reinforce his or her existing ways of living and thinking, and allow him or her to leave the theater without having been compelled to action, engaging in Complex Sight, participating in a collective experiment, or any kind of experience that he or she can’t get from film or television and all of the contemporary theater that wears the garments of these mediums during its masochistic identity-crises on the way to extinction. Likewise, I don’t like the way this end of the spectrum leans towards a Wagnerian-type conception of the audience as a unified body that can identify with us, the authors, in the way we identify ourselves and in the way that we intend, as if we are fairy tales or other mythic figures; to place a person into performance, fictive, historical, or “real,” is to extend that person and his or her statements/opinions/experiences into subsequent subjective analyses and catalogue-forming of “what is sensible.” I am not coherent enough to be a theory of the sensible (no individual is, that’s why we make characters), so I don’t want people to use me to determine anything. For an interesting argument that works against this, there is always Herbert Blau’s post-modern bible Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point (yeah, but Blau has different agendas, his work is relevant to an argument against this but not exactly in opposition, it’s focused differently…)
Likewise, in terms of time, I think “of the moment” work encourages individual audience members to have a “passive culmination” response, which is the erroneous feeling that what we are now, and what we think now, (and what the individual is and thinks) is the highest evolutionary point so far on some kind of Platonian journey, which shuts down analysis and the desire to learn and change (this journey towards the sun is also called “dialectic” so maybe this is where Brecht gets left peering from his own personal horizon of conceptions?) by reinforcing the value of the now and the value of the authorial positions in time (and in this case, about time) held by the work’s authors (playing oneself further reinforces this, which I do see as a positive thing in performance art but not in theater, WHY? Another post). Also, “in the moment” work may prevent us from having much of a relationship with our audience’s grandchildren, as they will see us as products, relics, and the irrelevant dead, forever confined to our own self-reference, like a snapshot of a snapshot.
I do think, however, that perhaps “of the moment” engagement can become epic, or dialectical, if it is presented not as a mirror but as part of a Lehrstück, in which the unity of form and content is part of a meta-dialectic of socio-political function, as per “the means have to be asked what the end is.” But of course, who can do this asking? I am very interested in seeing if Paul Pinto’s one-minute lectures (as himself, as part of this TIME piece) can hit something interesting in this area, I think they are beginning to, which is very exciting. Also, this whole debate is about TEXT, and text with music, not about forms that have audience engagement, or incorporate aleatoricism.
Let us see if work with text and music (memorized by us as performers, etc) can be simultaneously “of the moment” and dialectic. Perhaps there is no dichotomy between these two at all, it seems likely that it’s better modeled as a spectrum, (with “in” the moment somewhere in the middle? Perhaps as a beginning to a way of dealing this this?) we’ll have to define our terms better, and I think the analytical merging of these two weirdly polarized hands might be exactly what we should be working on…I additionally propose that perhaps we’re only able to move towards a compromise in terms of this dichotomy now because the split in postmodern reaction to a traditional leaning towards epic-ness (in Modern opera) vs. a postmodern reaction to a short-sighted populism (in theater) in part creates such a dichotomy. I might also suggest that preferences for “of the moment” work may, in fact, be pre-determined by a position as part of the post-modern avant-garde music dialectic, just as my vehement defense of epic-ness is a part of the post-dramatic theater dialectic.
In anti-conclusion, Robert Leach on how Brecht dealt with this: “ duality of form and content was replaced (to over-schematise briefly) by a triad of content (better described in Brecht’s case by the formalist term ‘material’), form (again the formalist term ‘technique’ is more useful here) and function. In Brecht’s dramatic form, these three constantly clash but never properly coalesce to compose a rounded whole.” (from Leach’s notes to Mother Courage and Her Children.)
Now if only we can only combine Brecht with John Cage somehow, we’ll have the TRUTH….